I was in Costco just a day after the Super Bowl and there was a whole table of New England Patriot Super Bowl winning T-shirts. These had obviously been produced some weeks in advance. There must have been an equal number of Atlanta Falcon T-shirts somewhere.
So where do all the Falcon T-shirts end up? They never appear in the U.S., just like you don’t see Cleveland Indian 2016 World Series shirts around. I don’t actually know where the Falcon T-shirts go but an educated guess is they are in Africa. The U.S. is the king of the used/discarded clothing market and Africa is the big buyer.
The charts on this page come from an excellent book we reviewed some years ago, Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). Used clothing is not glamourous but it is profitable. Worn clothing starts its journey at a Salvation Army or Goodwill store. What is not sold there is passed to middlemen for five to seven cents a pound. Some of the clothing is “vintage”, which goes for big bucks in wealthy markets. Some clothes end up as rags and some, like T-shirts, get packaged in 100-pound bales and sent to Africa. Once there, resellers bid on the unopened bales not knowing whether they contain Treasure (new Atlanta Falcon T-shirts) or Trash.
The used clothing market in Africa is not for dummies. You have to know what sells there. In hot climates the preference is for light cottons. Shorts have little appeal except for children and Africans prefer darker colors to lighter ones. Buyers of T-shirts do not like “in your face” logos or suggestive messages. They much prefer colorful pictures of animals and birds. And they know quality. When I was in Madagascar, a country as poor as Haiti, clothing stores either carried used items from Europe or new clothing from China. Many of the locals preferred higher quality European used clothing to the cheaper but often shoddier clothing from China.
What are some of my conclusions here? First, the U.S. is a wasteful society. Ninety percent of women’s clothing that is discarded is still in good condition. And since women buy 3-4 times the amount of clothing men do, there is a lot of choice in used women’s clothing in Africa.
A second conclusion is that globalization is here to stay. The complex dance of a T-shirt, born of Texas cotton, manufactured in Southeast Asia, sold new in America and discarded in Africa is so intertwined (and profitable) it will be difficult to take it apart. Globalization is a lot like whack-a-mole. If you build a Wall in one place, business will spring up in another. Demands for protection will always be with us, but the market is a powerful force. Globalization is not going away anytime soon.